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Christmas in the Confederate White House

Civil War soldier's teeth point to ancestry

BildeLarry McKee, right, senior archaeologist with TRC, points to a green glass bead found near the remains of a Civil War soldier in Franklin in 2009. / Tennessean file photo

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Kevin Walters | The Tennessean

Report in archaeology journal says remains suggest he was at least part American Indian 

FRANKLIN — Franklin’s “unknown soldier” had a mix of Native American and European ancestry and probably did not die as a result of a gunshot during the Battle of Franklin.

Those details are part of newly released archaeological findings that offer more insight about the male skeleton that was accidentally unearthed from an unmarked grave in 2009 during construction of the Columbia Avenue Chick-fil-A. The skeleton was later buried in Rest Haven Cemetery during a ceremony that attracted thousands of people and national attention.

Archaeologist Larry McKee and other experts who studied the remains have filled in some gaps about the soldier based on the bones, uniform buttons and a lone bullet found at the grave site — though his name and cause of death remain elusive.

“They were able to recover so much,” said McKee, who co-authored an article — published in the journal Tennessee Archaeology — about the skeletal remains with Sam Smith, archaeologist with the state Division of Archaeology.I wish we knew more about this guy and had some documents. I’m really pleased that we have been involved with it and to find out as much as we did.”

Among the findings:

Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist at Middle Tennessee State University, said the man’s incisor teeth are shaped like a shovel, which is a genetic trait shared by Asians and Native Americans. The man was probably in his 20s at the time of his death and was 5 feet 10 inches tall.

The cause of the man’s death and reason for his burial in an unmarked grave away from where the heaviest fighting in the Battle of Franklin occurred during the battle on Nov. 30, 1864, remain the biggest unanswered mysteries, especially since there are no other graves around.

Though archaeologists found a mutilated bullet with the bones — specifically a .58 caliber minié ball — analysis suggests the bullet is probably not what killed the man.

The bullet’s appearance was the result of “having been chewed, probably, by an animal.” The slug was found lying beneath some loose soil that had fallen.

“The skeletal remains were fragmented and poorly preserved, and yielded no signs of gunshot wounds or other trauma,” the article states. “Thus, nothing can be said about the specifics of his death. In terms of placement of the grave, it is well away from any documented sites of encampments or facilities clearly associated with either Federal or Confederate troops. He may have been laid to rest here following a skirmish or during a time of troop movement as a matter of expediency, with the idea that this would only be a temporary grave.”

The buttons found with the man, which were issued to Federal troops during the Civil War, don’t conclusively prove that the man fought for the Union since Confederate troops often took the uniforms of Union soldiers. However, two small buttons found around the skeleton’s head suggest to McKee that the man was buried possibly wearing a Union-issued forage cap.

Though buttons and even uniform coats from the opposing side were used by soldiers, caps were most important in identifying friendly and enemy troops and probably would not have been worn by someone on the other side.

Preservationists and historians have said the matter of which side the man was fighting for is irrelevant today.

“It really doesn’t matter which side he fought for,” said documentary filmmaker Jodi Jones-Speciale “At the end of the day, he was an American.”

Jones-Speciale and her husband, Brian Speciale, co-wrote and directed Heading Back Home, a film about the reburial.

McKee said he believes residents haven’t seen the last discovery of an unmarked grave from a Civil War soldier. Development in the years ahead will reveal others.

“I’m thinking probably somewhere out there, there are groups of these graves that have either been paved over or are off on the far side of a lot that hasn’t seen much activity,” McKee said. “I’m betting (that with) the next rise of building activity in that part of Franklin, more will come to light.”

Contact Kevin Walters at 615-771-5472, or on Twitter @Frkwriter.


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